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Electronic rock duo Phantogram came out of nowhere in early 2010 with the release of their debut album Eyelid Movies (Barsuk), which was lauded by both underground and mainstream press from Pitchfork to Alternative Press, SPIN to NPR. In the whirlwind year and a half following the album's release, Phantogram (along with touring drummer Tim Oakley) have been on the road almost constantly, building a well-deserved reputation as a tremendous live band. After finally making some time to finish and master a batch of new songs - just in time to go back out on a year-capping headline run (dates below) - the band is supremely excited to release Nightlife, a new mini-LP that will be available November 1st.
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"Nightlife" (6 tracks; 27 min.) starts off with arguable the weakest track on here, the tentative "16 years" which really goes nowhere. Things get much better with "Don't Move". The first half of this collection closes with an alright sounding "Turning Into Stone" (only one of two songs on here where Josh Carter takes lead vocals, all the others are Sarah-fronted, one of the big evolutions since "Eyelid Movies"). I rate the first half 3.5 stars. The second half starts of with the fantastic "Make a Fist" (with underlying drums reminding me of "Turn It Off" from "Eyelid Movies"). It is my favorite track on here. The title track starts off deceptively with delicate acoustic guitar sounds, only to evolve into a slowburner. The last track is "A Dark Tunnel", which would've fitted nicely onto "Eyelid Movies". I rate the second half of this EP 4.5 stars.
In all, this is a solid EP while we await the band's second studio album, and as such a welcome addition to Phantogram's catalog. But hurry up already and get us that second studio album sonner rather than later! I've seen Phantogram live twice earlier this summer, once here in Cincinnati and then again at Lollapalooza, and live the band brings just a massive sound by adding a live drummer and guitarist. Not to be missed if you have a chance to catch them in concert. Meanwhile I'm enjoying "Nightlife" quite a bit.
1. 16 Years
2. Don't Move
3. Turning Into Stone
4. Make a Fist
6. A Dark Tunnel
Nightlife opens with an 32 unsolicitous beats of plagal blankie. It's Phantogram's musical "hello, nice to see you again," and boy does it make me feel comfy. The washed-out texture thins and gives way to an echoey and enigmatic verse, whose lyrics have a tinge of Jabberwocky to them (if it's any relief to the lyric-ophiles out there, the text actually turns out to be loosely translated from the original gibberish into a based-on-a-true-story story about two Southern girls who were sentenced to 16 years in prison for petty theft). I'm not saying this track is cheesy, but it's music that gives you exactly what you want, especially if you want cheese. On the flip side, Don't Move is absolutely inspired. Four rips of the ignition cord and it's time to get up out of your seats. Oh wait, are we supposed to keep our bodies still? I'm just short of careening fetal-positioned into an existential abyss. But perhaps that's why this song is such a powerful experience: the track is about questioning one's impulses, and I find myself doing just that. While the musical texture in Don't Move is significantly more dynamic than the previous track, its melodies are just as addictive.
Turning Into Stone kickstarts with an awkward bugle arpeggio reminiscent of Boy Scout summer camp. The track's got a nicotine energy that leaves me feeling thoroughly vanquished. Accompanied by shrieks and turbulent underpinnings, Josh sings about episodes of depression and anxiety, and the half-hearted consolation of burying his feelings away. Moments of repose serve only to re-emphasize a miasma of off-kilter rhythms and sinister contrapuntal figures. I sense a lot of Sympathy 3000-21 in the developmental sections, even borrowing its rising scalar figures and grumbling mechanical bass line; understandable, given Phantogram's recent collaboration with the Flaming Lips. The song ends the only way it could: with a scream.
Make A Fist's pentagrammatic 5/4 intro has a sort of culty feel to it, especially considering its creepy parcel-tongue exclamations. A sensuous murmur reigns in the primary thematic material. The song's mantra-chorus ("is this the future/this is the future") is embellished with limping palpitations that drive the song into a somewhat chaotic coda with more than a touch of metal influence.
I can't help but think of the White Stripes at the onset of the album's title track. Pleading Radiohead-style vocals emerge to form a mystic soundscape that's got me itching for some low voices. The broken chord accompaniment eventually gives way to a spattering of percussion and longer-term rhythmic development. Ah, there's that buzzing bass line again; definitely worth focusing in on during subsequent listens. The ecstatic climax cries out "love is the only thing I ever needed," in tight harmony and hammered down by a simple drum beat. Its oh so short and sweet and could have been repeated practically ad infinitum, à la Hey Jude. Nightlife speaks to Phantogram's above-average repertoire of musical formulas. This track doesn't rely on the chorus-verse dynamic for structure; rather, it develops continuously in one long breath. It leaves off just the way it began: simple, plucky, and ponderous.
The album-ender, A Dark Tunnel, positively screams--or rather, monophonically chants--Yeasayer. The shimmering chorus that follows is particularly demonstrative of Phantogram's ability to juxtapose extremely distinct musical elements. I wonder sometimes whether the duality of Phantogram's music represents Sarah and Josh's competing musical sensibilities or if it's more of a procedural device. Either way, the result is affective.
Nightlife has moments of real sublimity, but I have a feeling we haven't seen the duo's artistic zenith. Phantogram commands a variety of musical genres--metal, indie rock, electronic--and integrates them practically as-is. In that sense, they are a band that knows where they came from. My hope is to see them start to really digest these styles into a more cohesive product, unique unto themselves.